By  on July 16, 2008

PARIS — Stocking products ranging from Nike support bras to Repetto ballerina shoes, France’s newest activewear chains are working out a sports-fashion mix exclusively for women.

After opening at Val d’Europe’s shopping center near Paris in May 2007, Lilysportive this month inaugurates its second women’s store, offering 20 sports brands over 5,000 square feet in Paris’ Bastille district. Founder and chief executive officer Jacques Krauze, who developed Parisian activewear emporium Citadium in 2000 and France’s Go Sport chain in the Eighties, said he plans to open between nine and 12 boutiques by 2011.

Attractive, a women’s activewear store carrying a dozen labels that launched its first store in Paris’ Les Halles center in 2006, opened its second 1,600-square-foot location on Paris’ Rue de Rennes in April and is targeting 15 boutiques by 2012.

Faced with sluggish activewear sales in France, retailers are banking on the women’s category, which grew 5 percent between 2003 and 2007, according to the research firm The NPD Group. “While that’s not huge growth, men’s and children’s were flat,” noted Renaud Vaschalde, an industry analyst at NPD Sports Tracking Europe. “Based on that, it makes sense to create stores specialized on women.”

Though still niche — sources estimate Attractive and Lilysportive’s existing stores each generate around 1 million euros, or $1.5 million a year — these retailers hope to emulate the success of women’s activewear chains elsewhere. In the U.S., Lady Foot Locker was founded in the Eighties and has about 600 doors. In the U.K., innovative women’s stores began appearing in the late Nineties and include sweatyBetty, a 24-door chain, and Sheactive, an e-tailer with two stores in London.

“This is a new kind of business and it is developing in Europe,” said Txerra Diaz, sales director of Roxy Europe.

In France, more than one million women took up sports between 2002 and 2006, according to a TNS Worldpanel study “Sport and the City” to be published this month, and women’s only sports centers like Lady Fitness have exploded.

“We’ve left behind the bodybuilding Eighties to take a more holistic approach to sport centered around beauty,” said Nicolas Deconinck, who cofounded Attractive with his brother Christophe, referring to the wellness trend and increasing popularity of yoga, Pilates and dance.

Those sporty women represent a lucrative target, said Nathalie Lestrat of TNS Worldpanel Fashion. Women’s activewear consumers spend some 560 euros, or $873, on apparel and footwear a year, one-third more than the 424 euros, or $661, spent by their nonactive counterparts, she said.

Sports labels have become increasingly style-focused. “From a masculine, performance-based lineup, brands have moved toward fashion,” said Attractive’s Deconinck, pointing to Adidas by Stella McCartney and Puma’s partnership with Hussein Chalayan.

Meanwhile, fashion chains such as Hennes & Mauritz and American Apparel have begun stealing market share. “They’re not making specific activewear collections, but casual apparel lines that can be used for sport,” said Lilysportive’s Krauze. Recent marketing concepts tailored to women include Women365.fr by Reebok, a sports news and lifestyle blog for women, a partnership between Reebok and French media company Group Sporever.

Yet France’s sports retailers have failed to keep up with such changes, executives said. “Sports stores are essentially masculine environments,” said Krauze, adding that they have been largely unaltered since the Eighties.

“You don’t hear people saying, ‘Hey, I’m off to go shopping at Decathlon or Go Sport,’” agreed Nicolas Deconinck, adding that stores focus on low prices rather than an enjoyable experience. Christophe Deconinck, a former Go Sport store director, said he had been told by female customers they were discouraged from trying on swimwear or lingerie for fear of running into men in the changing rooms.

“Everyone is cottoning on the fact that women like to have their own sports retail environment,” said Zoe Moss, sales and marketing director at British

activewear firm USA Pro, adding that they’re often less intimidating. “A woman in her 30s isn’t being greeted by an 18-year-old youth, and there’s usually better lighting and bigger changing rooms.”

Just one in four activewear purchases is actually used for sport and style prevails over buying decisions, according to TNS. So these stores aim to combine fashion-forward lines with technical collections. Targeting consumers from 15 to 55 years old, Attractive’s offer is split among lines such as Adidas by Stella McCartney and Repetto on the first floor, with running shoes and Nike underwear in the basement. A fun and feminine environment includes slogans such as “I’m more attractive than you,” emblazoned on walls while the number of calories used is marked on the stairs coming up from the basement.

Lilysportive, meanwhile, recruited Research Studios, the design team behind Citadium, to create the store’s white and pink visual identity with features including Charles Eames chairs. Targeting women between 25 and 55, products are split by function such as Lilyjogging, while brands include Esprit Sport and Roxy.

“There is a real need for these types of concepts in France,” said Stefania Gallonetto, export director for Italian dancewear label Deha. “Being sporty doesn’t mean forgoing glamour, quite the opposite.”

Women’s only stores tend to encourage multiple purchases more than traditional doors, said USA Pro’s Moss. “There’s a lot of choice, they know that it stocks a lot of women’s wear so they buy coordinating outfits.”

But as activewear brands expand their own store networks, newcomers face tough competition. Last month, California surfwear brand Reef opened its first store in Bordeaux, France, kicking off a new retail strategy to open boutiques. This month, Nike is opening a store on the Boulevard Sebastopol in Paris, having launched a Nike Women boutique on the Rue de Passy in the fall. Nike has eight stores in France, six of which are franchises. Puma has opened five French stores in 2008, bringing its count in the country to 16 and Adidas is scouting new locations to add to its nine stores in France.

Naming monobrand stores as Attractive’s main competition, Deconinck acknowledged the situation is tricky. “Our main competitors are also our key suppliers.”

NPD’s Vaschalde said, “With the big brands pushing their own stores, I don’t know if these new concepts can get the best stuff from Nike, Adidas and Puma.”

Newcomers also have to battle retailers such as Intersport, whose average store sprawls more than 16,000 square feet and which continues to upsize.

“To be able to sell sportswear you need to have square meters in order to cover correctly a variety of sports, and that includes if you specialize for women,” Vaschalde said.

Decathlon, meanwhile, is expanding its private label women’s collections to include limited edition fitness lines and a lifestyle-based swimwear collection. Attractive has already discontinued swimwear, where it was difficult to differentiate itself, and outdoorwear, where the market is dominated by specialist stores, to devote more space to lingerie instead.

In a bid to draw consumers and boost margins, both retailers are developing private label collections. This month, Lilysportive is unveiling an entry-level apparel and accessories line starting at 15 euros, or $23, for a T-shirt and up to 30 euros, or $47, for a sweatshirt. Having already created tops and cosmetics, Attractive will introduce a larger apparel collection for spring-summer, priced around 20 percent lower than leading brands.

However, Vaschalde cautioned retailers against straying too far from functional sportswear. “If you want to sell a nicely cut top, then competition from H&M or Zara will obviously be very strong,” he said. “H&M is far better able to sell those kind of products than Attractive or Lilysportive.”

Too small to negotiate product exclusivities with brands, Lilysportive and Attractive have created other points of difference. Highlighting its focus on women, Krauze established the Lilysportive Fund for Women in association with the charity CARE France to support humanitarian projects. To underscore its sports positioning, meanwhile, Attractive offers free dance and fitness sessions plus one-off promotions with brands. The winner of a recent Nike Women exercise bike challenge held in its Rue de Rennes store, for instance, bagged a Nike outfit a year for a lifetime.

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